Should park rangers be armed?

Safety concerns are prompting the city of San Jose to re-define what it means to be a park ranger. They'll spend the next six months looking at what the job should be and what tools rangers need to do it safely. That includes the possibility of arming the rangers with guns.

The rangers say they've been encountering drug deals and stolen cars in the areas they patrol.

They say a shrinking police department, and a growing city, have left them with more of a law enforcement role including policing the homeless encampments along city creeks.

"Unfortunately there is a criminal element that inhabit the creeks and the rangers have been bumping into that which has caused some concerns," Supervising Park Ranger Pam Helmke said.

Concerns which the San Jose City Council wants to address. They unanimously voted to study the role of the rangers: including whether or not they should be armed.

"Each piece of equipment has its pluses and minuses. You know, adding a taser, adding a gun, doesn't necessarily make the officer safer," Helmke said. 

Homeless advocates worry that arming park rangers could make volatile situations even worse.

"There's a way to approach that to where you de-escalate a situation. Having a gun in a bad situation like that is going to result truly in unspeakable consequences. And it's just not wise. And it's based in fear," Scott Wagers of CHAM Deliverance Ministry said.

And the homeless agree.

"Ridiculous. I think it's ridiculous because a lot of us we're just trying to live our lives. This is not our choice to be out here," Eva Vargas, who is homeless, said.

The park rangers say they aren't necessarily in favor of being armed, but that they do need clarity about the role they're being asked to take on.

"If the city wants us to become park police, then they need to be properly trained and equipped for that," Helmke said.

A committee will now spend six months deciding how much of their focus should be on legal matters and how much on environmental ones.

"I don't think it's something that can be rushed into. I think we really need to sit down and look at what we're going to ask our rangers to do in the future," Helmke said.

The committee will report back to the city council with its findings in the fall.